In every presidential election, pundits breathlessly speculate about an “October surprise” – an event or revelation that will change the dynamic of the race.
In every presidential election – at least for decades – that surprise never comes.
Now, perhaps, it has. The release of the 2005 Access Hollywood tapes has dealt a potentially fatal blow to Donald Trump’s campaign, and it threatens to have an impact on down-ballot races throughout the country, including in North Carolina.
With four Tuesdays remaining until election day, we brought back two veteran N.C. political strategists, Republican Carter Wrenn and Democrat Gary Pearce. Wrenn and Pearce wrote popular columns for the Observer on the Democratic and Republican conventions. We’re checking in with them regularly for their insight – and predictions – on the 2016 elections.
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Q. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan essentially told House members Monday that the presidential race is over and they should protect themselves. Is it over – nationally and in North Carolina?
Pearce: The Republican polls must say it is or he wouldn’t have told them that. I say yes, it is – but with one “if.” If there’s ever been a year when nothing is certain, this is it. I don’t know if Hillary could make a mistake that big, or if anything could come out that big to change things.
In North Carolina, I talked to a Democrat who had done some polling here over the weekend. They found that Trump was only getting 70 percent of the Republican vote. If that holds up, it’s a disaster for Republicans.
Wrenn: You can never say it’s over or it’s done because the miraculous can always happen. But Trump has put himself in a position where the miraculous has to happen.
It would be a smaller miracle in North Carolina, but still a miracle. The essential problem is people don’t have any confidence in his judgment. North Carolina is different demographically, but it’s the same problem for Trump in North Carolina and nationally.
Q. What does that mean for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr? Is he damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with regard to supporting Trump?
Wrenn: Yeah, a little. But in one way, Richard Burr is going to stand on his own two feet. People are going to look at this race and say this is Richard Burr and Deborah Ross.
But the world around Burr is moving toward Hillary Clinton and away from Trump. Is Hillary’s rise good for Ross? Yes. But Burr can manage that. It just makes his job more difficult.
Pearce: Burr has a choice. If he were to disavow Trump, he’d do himself more damage in the Republican party than Trump was doing to him. Trump has a loyal following. Burr has to walk a fine line.
This is like 1984 when (former N.C. Gov.) Jim Hunt ran against Jesse Helms (for U.S. Senate). The Democrats – we had a similar thing with Walter Mondale, who was getting only 35 percent of the vote. We had to separate from him ideologically. Burr’s challenge is he has to separate from Trump morally.
Q. Natural disasters can sometimes impact races a little. Hurricane Matthew is a tragedy. Politically, how much has it helped Pat McCrory?
Wrenn: Maybe a little, but I don’t think people learned anything about Pat from the handling of the hurricane that changed their perception of him. He’s done a good job with that, but people’s views of Pat McCrory are pretty much firm.
Pearce: My guess is it probably gives him a boost, but probably not enough. His troubles are deeper and go back much longer than even HB2 – really from his first year his numbers were underwater.
In that first year, No. 1 he looked weak because the legislature was in charge. No. 2 he lost his image as a moderate. People’s perceptions of him were developed then, and I don’t think anything in the last week is going to change that.
Q. Prediction time again. If the election were held today, who would win in North Carolina?
Pearce (who three weeks ago picked Clinton, Ross narrowly, and Democrat Roy Cooper in the race for governor): I have shifted in all races to being more optimistic about Democrats, plus for more Democrats down the ballot.
Right now, you have energized Democrats, and you have Republicans who are demoralized, and you have independents who are repulsed by Donald Trump.
Wrenn (who said polls indicated Clinton, Burr and Cooper would win): If it were held today, Hillary would win. Burr would win and I think Cooper would win.
The good news is it’s not being held today. Or maybe that’s not good news. I wish it were over.